I find, now that I’ve had children, that I spent rather a lot of time bragging about my husband.
For example, a while ago, I was having a conversation at the library storytime with the other stay-at-home parents. They were complaining about how sleep deprived they were. Eventually, the conversation got around to me, and I said, “I’m not sleep-deprived because my husband takes care of the baby all morning every morning until he goes to work, so I sleep in until 9am every morning.” At this point everyone stared at me and I had to flee lest I be suffocated in a jealous rage with a onesie.
So, as one half of one of the Mythical 50/50 Parenting Division Couples, and also one of the 33% of couples whose relationship satisfaction did not decrease after having a baby, I thought I’d explain how we got here.
Partner selection. By far the most important factor in having a fifty/fifty parenting split is having children with the right person. Your spouse is not your slave, and you can’t force someone who parent who doesn’t want to.
One of the most important factors to select for is a genuine desire to parent. My husband is very enthusiastic about having children: in fact, it’s been one of his primary life goals for as long as I’ve known him. Other green flags to look for include an interest in other people’s children and experience taking care of children (such as taking care of a much younger sibling or a housemate’s child, or teenage employment as a babysitter). A lot of the filtering can be done simply by believing people when they tell you about themselves. If your partner’s opinion on children is “meh” or “I guess this is the socially accepted thing to do” or “how about I go live in a yurt in the backyard until they are five years old and therefore interesting,” you will almost certainly not end up having a fifty-fifty parenting division.
Unfortunately, even the most child-loving spouses can fall into patterns of inequality. I would suggest looking for a deep-seated commitment to equality and, if you are a woman or nonbinary person married to a man, anti-sexism. It’s important not to be fooled by male feminists who are woke on Twitter but sexist in their personal lives: in my experience, a man’s tendency to make male tears jokes or talk about mansplaining has surprisingly little correlation with how sexist he is in day-to-day life. It is difficult to make a list of green flags for anti-sexism, because there are plenty of good reasons for any anti-sexist man to not do any specific thing. A man with depression or ADHD may be unable to share chores equally, and a socially conservative man may disapprove equally of promiscuous people of all genders. If there is interest I may write up a list of things I consider to be green flags for anti-sexism in men, but it is a bit of a tangent for this post, so I’ll leave it be.
Be prepared. Two-thirds of couples find that their relationship satisfaction decreases after having a baby. If you don’t have a solid relationship, you should not have a child together, and you certainly shouldn’t have a baby to repair the relationship. A solid relationship– one with affection and intimacy and where you can resolve conflicts in a constructive way– is a necessity for a 50/50 chore division.
Many couples assume that they’re both equality-minded liberals and so naturally a fifty-fifty parenting division is going to work itself out. I think this is often false. I think it is a good idea to talk about division of labor with anyone you plan to coparent with. If you’re a woman in a relationship with a man, bring up the research on the Second Shift. If you’re the primary caregiver, make sure your partner understands and agrees that while they put in a 40 hour week at work you put in a 40 hour week at home, and that not even the military and medical residencies expect people to be on call 168 hours a week.
Long parental leave. My husband got three months of paternity leave and took all three months. (Thank you, Women in STEM retention efforts.) I don’t know how I could have made it through those first three months without him, and I salute everyone who has to be at home alone with a newborn. You guys should get a medal.
I think both partners taking parental leave helps in two ways. First, you get in the habit of 50/50 parenting division from the beginning, when it’s easier and you don’t have to juggle competing obligations. Second, it builds a sense of confidence. Many fathers and many parents who are not the primary caregiver have a sense of learned helplessness about many aspects of caregiving: they don’t know how to make up a bottle, change a diaper, or comfort a crying baby, and they’re pretty sure it’s an impossible skill they’d never actually be able to learn. Parental leave is a chance for both parents to learn how to parent when both of you are sometimes screwing it up.
Unfortunately, many men in America do not have access to paid paternity leave, and for many couples arranging for unpaid paternity leave would be a hardship. But I think that if your future coparent has access to paid parental leave and refuses to take it, that is an enormous red flag and you should strongly reconsider parenting with this person.
The right amount of criticism. Some books on how to reach a fifty-fifty parenting division recommend not criticizing your partner’s parenting ever. However, when I took this advice, I found myself taking over the parenting even on my off days, because I was the only one who knew that the baby needed his iron supplement or how to soothe his teething pain.
There are probably some people who are so defensive that whenever you say something like “the baby needs an iron supplement” they will respond with “I guess I’m just never going to be as good a parent as you are, here, you take the baby” and then they go off to play video games. Don’t coparent with those people. If you’re coparenting with a reasonable person, then they will respond reasonably to kindly and tactfully phrased criticisms, and you shouldn’t feel bad about saying them.
If you’re the primary caregiver or the person who did the most caregiving in the past, then you probably know things your partner doesn’t. You’re the one who takes the baby to her doctor’s visits, who has the most practice comforting her when she cries, who first sees her learning her new abilities, and who spends the most time frantically googling the best ways to treat diaper rash. It’s okay to share that information with your coparent! Your coparent might be thankful that you did, because they also want the baby to be healthy and happy and stop crying so much.
The core of the advice I read, however, is correct. It’s important to chill out. If it’s your partner’s day to take care of the baby, it’s very easy to get mad at your partner when it’s 2pm and the baby is still in his dirty clothes from last night, or to be like “ugh! I’ll take care of it!” However, that happens sometimes. It is a fact of babies that sometimes taking care of them is really hard and they are wearing dirty clothes at 2pm. This has happened to lots of babies and they pretty much all grew up okay. You should remember all the times that you didn’t put the baby in his new clothes until 2pm, and remember that if you try to take over then you will not get a break at all, and then go out to a coffeeshop and let your partner deal with it.
In addition, your parenting style is probably different from your partner’s parenting style. I tend to alternate between periods of focused play with Viktor and periods of letting him play quietly by himself; my husband tends to interact with Viktor every few minutes, while being on Twitter or playing a video game. I have a real tendency to go “why aren’t you doing focused play with Viktor? You should do focused play!” But neither of our styles are bad; they’re just different. The baby will probably have a perfectly enriched environment either way.
The only way to get the child to be parented 100% of the time the way you want to parent him is by doing 100% of the parenting yourself. If you don’t want to do that, you have to accept that sometimes your coparent will do things differently than you will. Obviously, if there’s a legitimate concern for the baby’s safety, health, or development, bring it up! But if it’s just different people having different styles of parenting, let it go.
I’m not interested in having children, but I do consider myself a feminist, and anti-sexist. I think I interpret a “green flag” as something that isn’t necessarily *proof* that a person is anti-sexist, but a good signal that they are more likely to be anti-sexist given that they already profess general anti-sexist beliefs. (ie, that they aren’t just anti-sexist publicly while remaining bigoted privately/when they can get away with it)
Similarly, some of these signalling green flags aren’t possible for people, due to choice of occupation, religion, region, etc. Their absence doesn’t indicate sexism, but their presence does indicate likely anti-sexism.
So, in that spirit, a few green flags:
1. They have at least some good working relationships with some female colleagues.
2. They have had at least one female manager/superior that they respected and admired.
3. They have *both* female and male friends. (Having 90+% of either is a red flag)
4. They have one or more female friends that are not conventionally attractive.
5. At least one of their favorite authors are female.
6. For that matter, they read books for pleasure regularly. (This is a strange correlate, but the more I think about it in personal experience, the more it rings true.)
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Great post! I really enjoy your perspective on child-rearing. Little off topic, and this probably won’t be Ozy’s personal area of expertise, but I’d really like some insight into how to identify women who’d make a good co-parent, as a women. Just cause women are women, don’t mean they’re good at co-parenting. A lot of the male stuff is applicable, of course (like trust them, see how they handle babies etc.), but if anyone has experience and/or blogs on how to navigate 50/50 parenthood between women and what some typical traps are in this regard, I’d love to hear about it. I feel like advise to lesbians doesn’t really go beyond “here’s the nearest sperm bank” because women are expected to be great mothers anyway – if there’s two of them, the better. I’m not a parent, but I can imagine two lesbians have their own troubles with external pressures added to the mix.
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@Ozy: From your text I get the impression that you have split the time such that there’s always only one of you who is responsible for the child while the other is free to do whatever s/he likes. How do you handle family activities where both of you interact with the child and how frequent are they? I’m asking because many couples I know don’t seem to have clear responsibilities when both of them are together with the child.
Also how do you handle it, if the child wants to interact with the off-duty parent who is maybe relaxing nearby?
I’d like to point out that a legal right doesn’t necessarily mean equal access. There is a study that shows a substantially higher impact of career interruptions on men with an MBA than women with an MBA:
“The wage penalty for men, using our standardized career interruption at six years out, is 45 log points, whereas that for women is 26 log points. Taking any time out appears more harmful for men (26 log points) than for women (11 log points).”
This suggests that employers are less tolerant of men taking paternity leave than women taking maternity leave. So refusing to coparent with someone who refuses to take (all) parental leave can mean refusing to coparent with a person who works in a sexist culture and/or who refuses to accept more harm to their career than their partner.
In Sweden, <a href="https://nordic.businessinsider.com/well-educated-fathers-with-high-incomes-take-the-most-paternal-leave-in-sweden–the-opposite-is-true-for-mothers–"we see that well-educated and/or high-earning men take parental leave far more than less-educated and/or low-income men, suggesting that an unwillingness to coparent with men who refuse to take parental leave (perhaps due to the aforementioned discrimination against men) is going to strongly select against less-educated and low-earning men.
Of course, choosing a well-educated and/or high-earning man as a partner is probably highly beneficial to the chances of your kid, although it is also rather conservative and elitist choice. It seems to primarily be a choice to partner with the privileged, who have the luxury of making choices that the downtrodden cannot afford to make.
Oops, this is the correct second link.
PS. I still would appreciate an edit option.
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I’m a single father that had a co-parent helping for the first year but not afterwards. Something that seems an obvious consideration to me from personal experience, but is utterly taboo to talk about, is how difficult stay at home parenting is vs. outside-the-home labor.
I’m sure people differ widely due to personal preferences and dispositions, the nature of their job, how much they like children etc. but for me personally, I find taking care of my daughter way easier than performing my job. I have much more flexibility with my time, many opportunities throughout the day to take short breaks/do something for self-care, and the cognitive load I have to maintain is lower. I have a fairly “difficult” job that is typically considered very stressful, so I’m sure that’s part of it.
If I were to have a co-parent someday, that was stay-at-home full time, my honest opinion is that if fairness were the goal, a 50/50 split in parenting duties during my non-work hours doesn’t achieve that. My day job would simply be harder and more draining than my co-parent’s and that should be taken into consideration.
In my case this is mute because it’s just me, which is the only reason I feel like I can talk about this without fear of getting my head ripped off. I honestly think that if I were a stay-at-home co-parent with a partner doing a job similar to mine, I’d be happy to take on a larger share of the parenting labor even during their off-hours. 50/50 simply wouldn’t be the optimal division to optimize the joint flourishing of both of us.
Clearly an unscrupulous partner could take advantage in a dialogue about this kind of thing. I’m not trying to say these things hold in general, only that we shouldn’t be surprised that they do in some cases. Between two honest partners with good intentions I think it should be addressed.
For 50/50 to be the goal, it seems like there’s an implicit assumption that the time partners spend apart from each other is also equivalent along the relevant metrics. Any healthy couple will take into consideration when a partner has had an especially draining day and pick up the slack. If my partner ran their first marathon for example, on weekend day where we’d otherwise split duties 50/50, I’d rightfully expect to take on more of the parenting burden that evening, and be happy to in order to give my partner that opportunity. What if your partner’s day job is such that they’re taking on a larger load than you regularly?
Have you thought about this? Is there a way to discuss these things in a constructive way?
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I think the main thing is to be able to trust your co-parent to be honest about their preferences and not exaggerate for personal gain (and to curb any tendency to exaggerate yourself). That’s something you need to look for in a spouse anyway, since that’s a quality you need again and again.
I only have 1 1-year-old so don’t know what it’s like to have multiple children or older children, but I definitely consider my work days (4 of them) easier than my day at home alone with her (and, to be honest, my days at home with her and husband – just having baby around sucks up my attention and drains my batteries). I ADORE the days with her, but damn are they exhausting. I’d definitely balk if my co-parent would ask me to stay at home and, in return, demand more leisure hours than I get.
(Perhaps I would find it easier if my kid/potential kids-multiple are older. Perhaps it’s a sex/gender role thing – I find that having baby around sucks up my attention even if I’m not fully focused on her; when she’s around, I can browse the internet, read a couple of pages of a moderately complex book (in fits and starts), do chores or do some other stuff that’s easy to put down and doesn’t require my full concentration. I find that about 50% of my brain is observing what she’s doing, even if I’m not at all worried, and if she starts getting frustrated with something that percentage increases until she settles herself down or it’s clear that she needs me. At the end of the day I’m exhausted, even though technically speaking I may have spent 2 hours browsing reddit. My husband, on the other hand, can actually get a couple of quality hours of programming in on his day off with her – he can tune her out to such a degree that he still notices when she really needs him but it doesn’t disturb him. I’m sure that will decrease when she can walk/climb on him, though. An oft-quoted male-female difference, which ironically makes the spouse who DOESN’T stay home as often the spouse who would find it easiest. His cognitive load at home is smaller than at work, my cognitive load at work is smaller than at home (even though I’m also in a thinking-type career). Multitasking is just exhausting – if I’m at work, I don’t have to. If he’s at home, he just doesn’t.)
Still, you may find someone who thinks like you, who finds staying home easy; then, your co-parent might not mind ‘extending’ her on-the-clock hours. Say you work 40 hours a week at a job (then ‘she’ (for ease of talking) by necessity works 40 in childcare/home care), and spend 15 hours on the road in your commute (then she works another 15 in childcare). ‘Generally fair’ would be that you get an equal amount of true leisure time (no chores, no childcare responsibilities), equal amount of active parenting time/active household work time and equal amount of passive parenting time (being the at-home parent while kiddo is asleep and spouse is out; being the on-duty parent while kiddo is asleep and you both do something enjoyable but one of you is designated go-to-person in case of a midnight emergency).
If you have a job that’s typically seen as very stressful (paramedic or flight traffic controller or other high-stress/no-breaks type situation), I’m sure a reasonable co-parent would be happy to come to an agreement where you take a 30-min walk every morning or take a long nap on the weekend or do something else high-value restorative and consider it additional ‘work time’ for you (and therefore for her). After all, both of you need to be healthy, active and rested as much as you can, and if your regular mandatory duties leave you at a 4 and her at an 8, there’s some work to be done.
But it doesn’t have to be at the cost of the parenting duties. She can optimize her time during the day to get a bunch of chores done so the ‘workload’ to be shared when you’re at home is minimized. Or you can optimize for type of work – perhaps you find cooking restful, or shopping, or playing soccer with kiddo, or sorting outgrown baby clothes. In my case, my husband hates having his sleep interrupted while the only metric that matters for me is total amount of sleep; I dislike having to listen to baby cry when she needs to go to sleep but can’t find her chill yet (and going in there doesn’t help, so it’s a matter of toughing it out), husband doesn’t mind as much. In my house, if she’s in a bad sleeping period, I’ll happily trade off night duty for less bedtime duty.
I think it helps that you know what it’s like to do both, work and stay at home. Many fights about division of labor seem to be worse if neither side knows what it’s like for the other. (On the other hand, the fact that you find staying at home easy might predipose you to think SHE should, too, even though for her it might not be.)
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On the differing standards thing: That’s going to happen, just like in roommate situations. I’ve enjoyed how we’ve dealt with it- have a common motto you try to use as a touchstone/standard. Ours is “Parental Sanity is the ultimate good. All benefits to the family derive from parental sanity” It basically forces us to sometimes realize that we’re the centerpoint, and taking care of ourselves is a Very Important Thing.
On the lib/conservative stuff, I hope you all would consider some of the better aspects of what cons can bring to the table in terms of childcare, for example a sense of duty. It’s not hard for that sort of fellow to realize that mom’s tired, and his job in many ways is to keep her as happy as possible which will probably mean taking the chores she doesn’t are for and finding the places where you get the best impact for your time in the specializtion of labor (don’t like clesning dishes? There’s an easy one. 2am wake up? That’s another easy one)
One last thing to add: As good as everyone says breast milk is, I’d still keep them to the point where they’d drink a bottle of formula if possible, I would definitely keep them willing to drink a bottle of breast milk at the very least. It’s the difference between being completely attached to the child and having at least some freedom of action, as well as keeping the spouse involved in one of the biggest parts of early care and nurturing.
I’d just like to point out that a lot of relationships that fall off a cliff after childbirth do so because of pelvic floor disorders that could be resolved by physical therapy if only the OB thought to refer the mother to a pelvic floor therapist. The ability to have sex is important yet OBs only seem to see mothers from the neck up as they screen for postpartum depression.
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